Midwest Flooding and Climate Change

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This is a companion piece to yesterday’s “Midwest Flooding, the Corn and Soy Crops, and Knock-On Effects.” In that post, I did not address the planet in the room: climate change (and many midwesterners have that problem, too, as we shall see). In this post, I will. First, I’ll look at what government scientists say about the relations between flooding and climate change; then, what other scientists say; next, what polling says; and finally what Midwesterners themselves say. (I’ll also have something to say about “settled science,” and the role of the Democrat party.

Government Scientists

Here is the view from NOAA, from Reuters’ “Climate change’s fingerprints are on U.S. Midwest floods: scientists.” But not all scientists:

Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring at the National Centers for Environmental Information, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that the type of heavy precipitation that immediately led to the upper Midwest floods is generally increasing over time.

But trying to link the role of climate change to an individual event is a “fool’s errand” akin to trying to determine the cause of a car crash while the wheels are still spinning, he told reporters on a conference call.

More research needs to be done to find a definitive answer on climate’s link to the floods, Arndt said.

I respect Arndt’s[1] caution, but if his implication is that “more research needs to be done” to make policy judgements about climate change, I disagree. Let’s replace Arndt’s “car crash” metaphor which, oddly for a climate scientist, is linear, with a metaphor that involves a feedback loop. Imagine a system where I am bringing a pot to the boil on the stove, and watching it. The feedback loop runs from the water in the pot (is it bubbling or not?) through my eyes and brain, through my hand, to the dial on the stove, to the stove’s flame, to the water. No bubbles, I turn the flame up; bubbles, I turn the flame down. Now, in this metaphor, the flame maps to the sun, the water maps to the Mississippi basin, and the bubbles map to the floods. Do I need to understand the causal linkage that causes an individual bubble to rise to the surface and burst? No. All I need to know is that rising bubbles in the aggregate show the pot is boiling. Now, to broaden the metaphor — here I appeal to Arndt’s Catholicism, if he ever reads this — the stove is in my house, and I am the steward thereof. So I have a duty to turn down the pot before it boils over — not just to watch the bubbles (even if I think that’s my calling). Further, if there’s a capitalist toddler in the house, it may even be my duty to take the pot off the burner and extinguish the flame. Concluding, I don’t accept the idea that we have to know everything before we can do anything (the whole “settled science” discussion). There is no grand unified theory that explains both gravity and quantum mechanics. More research was not needed for the Apollo program that took us to the Moon. There is no scientific explanation for consciousness. More research was not needed for social media to manipulate consciousness through the dopamine loop (or, more mercifully, for some forms of therapy to work, some of the time). We are discovering new feedback loops for climate all the time; I check Nature for them every day, and half the time there’s something new. We don’t need to wait until the scientists run out of things to study to make policy decisions. We don’t know everything. But we know enough.

Non-Government Scientists

Here are the views of some scientists outside[2] government. From National Geographic, “Midwest flooding is drowning corn and soy crops. Is climate change to blame?”

[T]hough it’s difficult to link one single weather event to climate change, climate scientists say the devasting rains falling over the Midwest are exactly in line with what they’ve been predicting.

“Overall, it’s climate change,” says Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We expect an increase in total precipitation in the Midwest, especially in winter and spring, with more coming as larger events.”

In the most recently published National Climate Assessment, in 2018… researchers concluded that the U.S. would face more catastrophic flooding that would affect infrastructure and crops.

So, the interagency process actually made a good call. To which we should listen. Here are some scientists less cautious about tracking causal chains. From Yale Climate Connections, “Did climate change cause the flooding in the Midwest and Plains?”:

What made this year so bad?

The answer is a perfect storm of factors. The fingerprints of mid-March flooding in the area can be traced back to the summer of 2018 and the wet months that followed. Some of the root causes – like wetter weather and rapid spring warm ups – have become more likely due to climate change.

“Having frozen ground, having snow on the ground, having moderate to heavy rainfall,” [Bryan Peake, a service climatologist at the Midwest Regional Climate Center] said, “all those things together made it so that the snowmelt and the spring flooding was so much worse.”

So, if “total precipitation” is the level of water in the pot, “all those things together” are the rising bubbles. The causal chain looks something like this: Rainy fall > frozen soil > snow melt before thaw > bomb cyclone > river flooding. (Read the whole article; the teased-out interconnections, unpleasant though they may be for us humans, are things of beauty.)

Oh, and this chilling vignette. This is how saturated the soil is:

In his yard in [Hudson,] Iowa, [Zach] Van Stanley said he could hear the water bubbling in the thawing ground.

Reminds me of the time I heard water bubbling in the basement. A heart-stopping feeling.

Polling

Even though weather is not climate, “Floods and storms are altering American attitudes to climate change.” From The Economist:

Older polling, by Pew, had suggested that coast-dwellers were more alarmed by climate change than those living 300 miles or more inland. But inlanders’ views seem to be shifting, too. A survey published this year by the Energy Policy Institute, part of the University of Chicago, found that 70% of Americans believe climate change is real. Nearly half are also more persuaded by warnings from climate scientists than they were five years earlier.

Many said that witnessing extreme weather events—like the tornadoes, storms and floods battering the Midwest —did most to form their views. Michael Greenstone, who runs the institute, says the Midwest is already affected by “hotter summers, and it is more challenging for agriculture”. The region’s farmers are already at the sharp end of change.

So, finally, let’s turn to those Midwesterners.

Midwesterners and the Democrats

From the New York Times, the discouraging headline “In Flood-Hit Midwest, Mayors See Climate Change as a Subject Best Avoided“:

“We know there’s something going on, so how do we come together and deal with that?” said [Mayor Frank Klipsch of Davenport], a two-term mayor who said taking a stance on climate change could be “divisive.” “Let’s not try to label it. Let’s not try to politicize it. It’s just a matter of something is changing.”

“I don’t see a purpose at this point to create a challenge, a straw man to argue about, when in reality we all know what the ultimate results are,” said Mr. Klipsch, who does not belong to a political party.

Davenport is a largish city, population ~102,000, and part of the Quad Cities area, population ~475,000. (It’s also home to John Deere, and to the Rock Island Arsenal, the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the United States.) So my initial thought, that Klipsch’s extreme conflict avoidance was based on living in a small town where everybody knows everybody, was wrong. More:

Floods have happened throughout history, and they have a complex cocktail of causes. In interviews with nine local officeholders in places where the Mississippi River crested recently, several politicians said they believed climate change was playing a role in the frequency of floods. Others were openly skeptical or declined to take a position.

Across those lines, officials said climate change was a politically risky topic that they generally avoided discussing — and that they considered less relevant to the flooding than levee heights, changes in river management and other factors.

Thinking of how my own town runs, I wonder where the contractors for the levees come from. And “changes in river management and other factors” make me think they want to buy a heavier lid for the pot instead of turning down the heat. More:

Not talking about climate change in frank terms can carry risk, said Louis Gritzo, vice president for research at the insurance company FM Global, which advises clients, including large corporations, about the hazards that climate change will bring. Mr. Gritzo warned of an “uncertainty trap,” in which leaders avoid talking about climate change, do not take action and expose themselves to more dire consequences in the future.

“Uncertainty trap” is better framing than usual (though there’s a post to be written the environmental “movement” and why we are where we are). However, to me, there’s one instant and obvious way to lower the political risks, and that would be for the Democrat party — not candidates, but the Party itself, as an institution — to “have the backs” of those who speak out, so as to provide a countervailing force to Koch propaganda and FOX News. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen. The Hill, “DNC chair says 2020 climate change debate is ‘not practical’ after being confronted by activists”

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom Perez on Saturday said a presidential debate focused solely on climate change is not “practical” after a group of activists confronted him about the issue.

“It’s just not practical,” Perez told the activists after delivering remarks at the Florida Democratic Party’s Leadership Blue gala, according to The Tampa Bay Times. “And as someone who worked for Barack Obama [good gawd], the most remarkable thing about him was his tenacity to multitask, and a president must be able to multitask.”

Inslee, who had called for such a debate, reacts:

Inslee said last week that the DNC’s decision amounted to “silencing the voices of Democratic activists, many of our progressive partner organizations, and nearly half of the Democratic presidential field.”

“Democratic voters say that climate change is their top issue; the Democratic National Committee must listen to the grassroots of the party,” he added in a statement.

Mush. Perez also banned any Democrat candidate from particiating in non-DNC sanctioned climate debates. If Inslee had any stones, he’d defy the ban. I’m sure the League of Woman Voters, who used to organize debates, would be happy to set one up. And if Inslee did that, those in Davenport, Iowa who accept the reality of climate change might not feel isolated, and that there was nobody in the political class who would defend them, and the local equation of political risk would change.

Conclusion

So, we have an utterly dysfunctional system moving slowly toward greater functionality. So far, much too slowly. The Democrat Party could accelerate the process. But instead of watching the boiling pot in the kitchen, they’re sitting round the card table in the living room, playing Snakes and Ladders, or something equally childish.

NOTES

[1] From Arndt’s LinkedIn page, of NOAA: “We sit at the service end of a complex, beautiful, multi-decade tradition of collecting, storing and serving data, and we strive to live up to the tradition of that whole apparatus. We provide the analysis function and we do it well.” That lovely data collection was quite evident to me as I did my research for yesterday’s post.

[2] I am making this distinction because, given the administration’s position on climate change, scientists outside government may feel more free to speak. I’m not impugning the integrity of NOAA.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

45 comments

  1. Ford Prefect

    If you are focused on quarterly and annual earnings, then anything that is a decade or more out is largely irrelevant. So most of the leadership in Corporate America simply doesn’t want to know about climate change.

    With the large excess wealth of the world-wide 0.1%, Miami Beach condos are effectively consumables. Enjoy them now and if a hurricane or rising oceans takes out the building 20 years from now, c’est la vie. So nothing to see here…move on.

    Much of the very vocal crowd on climate change also support LGBTQ and abortion rights, so climate change gets viewed by a portion of the population as something to resist on principle.

    Much of the very vocal crowd is also pushing for $15/hr minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, and lots of other social issues, so once again, a portion of the population views climate change action as part of the socialist plot to take over the country.

    However, as Mike Tyson famously said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”, so we are starting to see movement on the climate change issue as anomalous events like this Mid-West flooding, Harvey, Florence etc. pile up in the heart of climate change denialism (I don’t think Sandy counts because that occurred in the socialist hot bed of NY/NJ and the wildfires happened in California where they don’t rake their forest floor). Ultimately, the irony is that the biggest climate change impacts are likely to be in the areas that currently have the highest levels of denial so the concentrations of disasters in those areas may hurry changing of minds.

    I would like to see the climate change action folks do things like push car companies to sell hybrid cars and SUVs and the public to buy them now to reduce fossil fuel use. Demanding that the United States return to the Stone Age is not going to win many friends but having fundamental executable programs that can start to make a change is key. The big change can follow later.

    Reply
  2. solo-blue

    Lambert, thank you for putting this together. A couple of thoughts to inject…

    Continuing the boiling pot analogy… It would probably behoove us to start to figure out which knob(s) to turn which way to affect change in the system. We don’t understand the systems and physics behind them, and probably never will fully, so it’s going to require some level of experimentation to see what we can do, and to what effect. Additionally, the process is going to take a painstakingly long time, across generations of scientists, and across many policy administrations. So the person standing at the stove is unlikely to see any real change based on the tweak made; it will be a different person. That stresses the need to at least set up a way to collect, analyze and propagate the information and knowledge across time.

    On the other side of the science and engineering behind responding to climate change is what do we do with public policy? As far as I can tell, we are in a whole new ball-game with respect to how to deal with private land/property that’s devastated by natural events. Take for example the farmer who sets near the river bed, because that’s logically a good place for farming (near water supply, logistics, etc.). Seems like in the past the farmer was burdened with all the risk, such that if the river flooded and the season’s crop was laid waste, that was on him. He either just tried again next season, perhaps with a little help from his neighbors, if they deemed him worthy of the help. Maybe if the community there deemed the cost worth it, they could collectively engineer a control measure–e.g. levy–to protect the farms in the area. Or he could up and find another place to farm.

    Seems like this risk is increasingly shifting to the public. State or federal funding is supporting that risk by providing the capital needed to continue these types of endeavors. That’s fine, if we have a way of validating the benefit to the nation for the tax revenue used to support these high risk endeavors. To wit, is it worth it for people living in New England or in California to support through federal taxes ethanol corn corporate farms in high risk areas of the mid-west? And in reverse, should mid-west taxpayers bear the burden to engineer flood gates to keep sea-level rise from drowning a posh/exclusive coastal New England town (instead of just moving that locale five miles up the river to the ghost town that was once one of the most wealthy in the country)?

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I understand that there is a Federal Flood Insurance program. I haven’t studied the details. it was probably developed before the onset of ManMade Global Heatering. So the flood maps it would have used would have said what the flood risks were at the time of their making . . . before the onset of ManMade Global Heatering.

      So . . . how to set up a program which will let people who accept the reality of Global Heatering collectively help eachother survive the effects of the Heatering, without wasting any help on the people who affect a pose of “Heatering Skepticism” ?

      Simply make new maps in parallel with the old maps. Have the new maps reveal the new risks of flooding in the new Heatering world. People whose property was not within the floodability-risk zone on the old maps, but IS within the floodability-risk zone on the NEW maps . . . could by Federal Global Warming Flood Insurance. Those who don’t “be-LIEEEVE” in global warming, don’t have to buy the insurance. And won’t receive any help when they get flooded. Or at least not any help from the buyers of Global Warming Flood Insurance.

      Reply
      1. John Zelnicker

        @drumlin woodchuckles
        June 10, 2019 at 9:09 pm
        ——-

        FEMA actually does update the flood maps periodically. However, they are reissued every 3-5 years, IIRC. Part of the reason is they don’t want to assume the last big flood is the new normal and issue updates based on one event.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Probably the whole history of those FEMA flood maps could be studied . . . 5 year span by 5 year span. If there is a point, or a time gradient, over which the floodability-zone starts growing faster and keeps growing faster than it did before the changeover to “growing faster” , then we could say that ” the inflection window” of floodable-zones growing and spreading faster than before marks the time when Global Warming began speeding up the growth of potential flood zones.

          If we can identify that inflection time, then we could say that any floods happening in places which were not “flood places” beFORE the beginning of that inflection time . . . are the result of global warming. And flood coverage for any areas which became flood-risk AFTER the onset of global-warming should be sold to anyone who buys the Global Warming Zone flood insurance based on acceptance of the reality of global warming. And if they get flooded they get the help they bought insurance to pay for and provide.

          And those people who “don’t beLIEVE” in global warming, should be free to not buy the insurance. They should be very clearly informed that if they don’t buy the insurance, they will recieve zero help in the event of being flooded.

          We let people in the “New Flood Zones” sort themselves into 2 buckets: Darwin’s Darlings and Darwin’s Discards.

          Reply
      2. Math is Your Friend

        “I understand that there is a Federal Flood Insurance program”

        And that is part of the problem.

        In essence, it encourages people to build on land that is going to flood, then pays them to renew the error when it does.

        Far better to designate high risk areas that will flood as ‘no build’ zones, except for properly designed essential infrastructure.

        Here, the areas that flooded in 1954 during hurricane Hazel were so designated, and now the rare floods that do occasionally happen (once a decade or two) are a non-event.

        I have been puzzled by this ‘encourage them to build on a flood zone’ policy for at least the last 4 decades…. it makes no sense to me, except as a particularly shortsighted political ploy.

        The other option would be to go the Dutch route, and build some serious permanent dikes… but whether the benefit justifies the cost is not clear to me.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          In the current “anti-government” climate, designating high risk areas as ‘no build’ zones would be accused of heavy-handed government intrusion and would inspire the organized backlash of continuing to support heavy-handed government subsidy to flood-zone builders and investers . . . under the soothing rubric of free market whatever.

          Better to announce the shrinkage of government from the “flood insurance” sector and declare that The Marketplace can handle Flood Assessment risk better than the heavy hand of government Federal Flood Insurance. And cancel the Federal Flood Insurance Program completely and altogether. Let people live in the flood zones at their own private personal risk. Get “the government” out of the way of peoples’ freedom to live in a flood zone with zero help or hope for assistance when they get flooded.

          Reply
  3. Big River Bandido

    I was born and raised in Davenport, still have family in the area and get back frequently to visit. (The “Big River” part of my handle comes from the geography.) I was in Davenport for 10 days in mid-May, just as the initial river crest had abated. Hence, please excuse my long comment, but it comes from intimate knowledge of the place.

    About the economy and culture: it’s not at all a “small town”. Davenport is an old heavy industry and transportation town and in its heyday attracted many transient workers. Once very prosperous, it was badly damaged by the neoliberal project starting very early on (1970s). By the time I was in high school in the 1980s, the unemployment rate in the metro area was 25% — everyone knew someone who had been laid off from Case, IH, Caterpillar or Oscar Meyer.

    Politics: as a “charter city”, Davenport is exceptional in Iowa — the city was chartered by the Michigan Territory in 1836, ten years before Iowa became a state, thus it enjoys a special status. At the time I lived there, it was the only city in Iowa which still had partisan elections (as in, Republicans and Democrats). I’ve not heard anything to the extent that this law was changed, although it may have; I was not able to locate anything on a quick google search to indicate mayor Frank Klipsch’s official party. But I can almost guarantee you he’s a Republican; he won the seat in 2015 by ousting a longtime anti-choice Democrat. (Yes, the partisan divisions in Davenport often defy the national template.)

    Geography: Davenport’s downtown area is mostly situated in the river bottom — for most of the length of the riverfront, Antoine LeClaire Park takes up about 2 blocks worth of space back from the bank. At the back of that runs the Canadian Pacific rail line. Just back of that is River Drive (originally called Front Street), followed by 2nd Street (originally Sauk Street), 3rd Street (Meskwaki), 4th Street (Ottawa), 5th Street (Chippewa), and 6th Street (Pottawatomi). Between 5th and 6th Streets runs another rail line (the old Rock Island Line), and the land begins a steep rise to a bluff which culminates at about 10th Street.

    With the exception of a small segment of River Drive near the Arsenal Bridge, the flood zone downtown extends from the river to a point between 2nd and 3rd Streets. In that area near the Arsenal Bridge, the river bends and the park land narrows considerably, so the flood zone there extends nearly to 3rd Street. Essentially, then, the first two blocks from the river (River Drive and 2nd Street) are the areas most vulnerable to flooding in the downtown area. There is another vulnerable flood zone downstream (west end of town) in the Garden Addition, a postwar subdivision populated by working-class people (those who are left). This area, though subject to river flooding, is more vulnerable to flooding from two creeks which empty into the Mississippi; when the river floods, the creeks back up.

    Davenport experiences minor flooding all the time in the downtown areas. Usually, that flooding is limited to the Park, or it might reach just shy of River Drive. On the occasions where the river is over flood stage but not extremely so, River Drive (Highway 67) might be closed to traffic. Where things get really hairy is during the so-called “Hundred-Year Floods”. There was a big one in 1965, and though there was minor flooding in the intervening years, the next disastrous flood was not until 1993. Since then, there have been 1 or 2 others before this year. This year’s flood was unusual not for the height of the crest, but the length of time the river stayed above flood state (50 days).

    During those “hundred-year floods” (which now occur more and more often), businesses up to 2nd Street are inundated. Sandbags are used as temporary levees at these times along River Drive, but occasionally, they fail. Many of the biggest institutions — the new art gallery and the River Music Experience (located in a historic, 1880s department store building) — are either built on raised platforms or have been retrofitted with special walls to keep the river out during floods. The baseball stadium itself is protected by its own floodwall, but when the river reaches flood stage you can’t get to it. Most other buildings in this zone — bars, small shops, and a certain number of old industrial buildings converted to loft housing — do not have such protection. Over the course of several floods, many old buildings were razed (this area was the site of Bucktown, one of the most notorious brothel districts in the nation in the 1890s), but there are still many buildings in that flood plain which stand. Policy has been very inconsistently applied — on the one hand, the city has purchased flood-stricken homes in the Garden Addition and then razed them. But in the downtown area, there has been a reluctance to sacrifice the few historic buildings that are left.

    As a result of this situation, Davenport occasionally makes the national news at flood stage. One of the questions raised by outsiders is “why not build a floodwall?” Davenporters usually point across the river to Rock Island, which did exactly that several decades ago — separating the town from the river. But my understanding was that there were environmental as well as aesthetic reasons for that decision.

    As I see it, the addition of climate crisis really only changes one aspect of this situation: the floods come more often and take longer to recede. So far, they have not penetrated to a higher level. However, if the increased rainfall adds so much volume that flood-stage becomes a “new normal”, it seems likely that the “high water mark” will start to encroach farther from the river, into the heart of downtown.

    Reply
    1. ex-PFC Chuck

      Your description of Davenport, as well as Lambert’s mention of Rock Island Arsenal, brought back memories. Except for basic training I served my two years of Army conscription at RIA, The Arsenal is located on an island in the river and the 1965 flood occurred during my time there. I and the handful of other junior enlisted men were “asked” to assist with the sand bagging of the 19th century stone houses on Officers Row, which were adjacent to the golf course and close to the river – so close we could see the frightening amount of stuff being carried on its way to the Gulf. I didn’t see it but one of the guys claimed a piano had floated by.

      Reply
      1. Big River Bandido

        Must have been a hot place at that time. I wish I’d been born a little earlier to have been able to enjoy it. Downtown Davenport was still a bustling place in the 1960s, before the suburban malls drained the downtown.

        If it was a piano your buddy saw, it probably didn’t survive contact with the dam…

        Reply
      1. Big River Bandido

        Sorry my comment went on so long. My brain and keyboard got stuck.

        Do you mean conflict avoidance by the elected officials? If so, I suspect that the climate crisis mentality has not yet gotten through as a “local issue” yet, and the politicians don’t want to touch what they can’t squeeze a victory out of.

        Flooding itself isn’t new…what’s new is the increasing frequency, and I think the historical memory/significance of that is only beginning to seep in at the local level. As a political issue…? Probably not much salience yet. “Big issues” there revolve around budgets and contracts (meaning salaries), and mind-numbing minutae. Elected officials there probably prefer it that way. As a result of the “weak mayor-council with city manager” form of government which prevails in Iowa, city officials have little power, little pay, little budget…basically not much with which they can do very little. Politics — for that matter, even “government” — is a part-time job, to the degree that it’s even a “job” at all. All the real governance gets outsourced to “professionals”…like the “city manager”. This gives local politics the real feel of “volunteer” effort…because for the most part, it is.

        Four years ago the mayoral race was roiled by a controversy surrounding a bungled casino real-estate deal and the resulting buyout of the city manager’s $300K contract. In a town of only 100,000 people, that’s a lot of money and a lot of acrimony that people there simply prefer to avoid when the governing class is so small. Conflict avoidance regarding the climate? That makes the real-estate scandal pale in comparison. I think for a lot of small-city elected officials, they’re avoiding it because they have such limited resources, and they’re afraid to touch it, especially when their own positions are so “low stakes”.

        Reply
        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > Sorry my comment went on so long

          It wasn’t too long.

          > , they’re avoiding it because they have such limited resources, and they’re afraid to touch it, especially when their own positions are so “low stakes”.

          A mismatch between the political payoff and the systemic necessities.. There is surely a name for this abstract concept.

          Reply
    2. Eclair

      Not a long comment, by any means, Bandido! The stories of these towns/cities (Davenport, Iowa; Elkhart, Illinois; Gary, Indiana, etc.) that have been so important in the development of our nation (in good and bad ways, to be sure), is fascinating. And the Quad Cities area has lots of history.

      We spent some time at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois, just across the River from Davenport, because, since they were founded by Swedish immigrants, they are a great resource for investigating Swedish immigrant ancestors. I remember the jolt when I saw the sign for the Rock Island Arsenal! Wow, I thought, making bombs in the middle of the River!

      So, thank you for illuminating comment.

      Reply
  4. rc

    Why not focus on pollution? Scientists from NASA say that pollution aerosols directly affect cloud formation. Perhaps the combination of pollution coming out of China is not only polluting the air and harming people. China’s actions could be leading to increased cloud formation and higher levels of precipitation.

    If you are worried about ocean acidification, that should also lead one to focus on pollution correlating to CO2. Blaming everything on climate change is a waste of time and may be scientifically dubious. That is why more data is needed though the problem may be too complex for our current capabilities to reliably determine.

    Reply
    1. pretzelattack

      People aren’t blaming everything on climate change; climate change is the likely source and is certainly a contributor. the scientist quoted said we can’t “definitively” describe the link, but we can certainly take the most practical course and assign a high probability to it. moreover, the government scientist may be constrained by fear of the consequences from the trump administation–it is worth noting that he seems to be the outlier here, representing the conservative side. i see no benefit in pandering to the fossil fuel propaganda.

      Reply
      1. cocomaan

        There’s a higher probability that the devastation was caused by modern farming practices, overpopulation, and reduction in ground cover that gets you the beneficial evapotranspiration you need to deal with runoff.

        All three of those phenomena can be measured and all the measurements go in the wrong direction.

        Pretty sure this is the same part of the world that had a dust bowl just under a century ago. Was the dust bowl because of climate change? Not really. It was because they sucked at farming. And we still suck at farming, in many respects. You cannot have open prairies of tilled mono crops and expect them to handle water well.

        Reply
        1. Anon

          Or have towns originally developed an apparently safe distance from a river course with little surrounding development, or upstream levies, now inundated by the change in land-use, as well as the climate. Double jeopardy.

          Reply
  5. Code Name D

    Not a public perception problem as much as it’s a corporate media problem that manifests itself through public perception. Just like how Bernie doesn’t have an “elderly problem” as much as he has a corporate media problem that manifests itself through older voters, because older voters tend to get their information exclusively from corporate news sources.

    The corporate media simply doesn’t talk about global warming and environmental change. When they do, its in a he said/she said environment where refutations of climate change are made with as much authority as scientific warnings.

    I am not convinced the majority of voters have rejected climate change. Even republicans are starting to come around, even if they have to keep their opinions in the closet because of social pressures. In which case, the media plays a role on creating those social pressures as well as giving the illusion that the majority of the voters reject climate change.

    But even if the majority do reject climate change – it’s an opinion manufactured by the media, both left and right. And I would argue that its irrational to expect the masses to hold an opinion contrary to the evidence presented to them.

    Progressives need to do more to get climate change issues smuggled pass the media blockade.

    Reply
  6. Jonathan Holland Becnel

    Lambert, have you seen First Reformed? It came out last year. Very powerful messages of Religion and Climate Change.

    Reply
  7. Dave Holloway

    Well, it is unprecedented, at least over the 50 years for which similar data is available.

    The ’93 floods were later in the season and more localized- most of the corn belt has struggled mightily this year.

    USDA Crop Progress this afternoon at 83% of intended corn acres planted. Fair to assume that not more than 5-6% more gets planted given that it is 6/10. That takes off 9-11 million acres.

    Condition rating is 60% Good to Excellent, well behind last year and doesn’t include the 20% not yet emerged-which by definition isn’t Good or Excellent at this date.

    Take 7 bpa off of trend for final yield (perhaps optimistic) and 10 million fewer acres and the large projected carryout is nearly gone. That assumes good weather through Fall.

    Soys at 60% planted- probably a few million intended acres won’t get planted but some corn acres will probably go to soy. I’ll call it a wash but assume a per acre yield a bit lower than trend at best. Soybeans need more help than that in order to get a large price boost.

    Market may even attempt to remain content with the notion of huge 2020 corn acres and resulting smaller soys but it will be threading the needle for things to go so well that the premise isn’t challenged sometime in the next year.

    Domestic demand is pretty inelastic- ethanol plants and livestock factories don’t change their output a lot until prices are much higher. There will be adjustments in export originations.

    Reply
  8. Dave Holloway

    BTW, USDA monthly supply and demand report tomorrow at noon.

    Historically they’re pretty cautious in making large adjustments in acres or yields at this point and traders don’t like bucking city hall.

    If USDA says that the numbers I cite above are overdone by double, that will be the word for the time being.

    Reply
    1. Ptb

      Dec 2019 Corn futures on cmegroup.com… up 10-15% for the year, from 380-400 to 450ish. Could be worse, one would think.

      Reply
  9. Dave Holloway

    BTW, with 60% of corn rated G-E but 17% unplanted and 21% not emerged (so not rated) that’s really the worst crop rating at this juncture in the history of the reporting system.

    But the headlines won’t read that way and depending on which side of the market you’re on you might consider it a good thing.

    Reply
  10. Steven

    There is a more basic reason than climate change for conservation and limiting the use of fossil fuels. We will soon have no choice. Fossil fuels have allowed our species to propagate way beyond sustainable limits, consuming hundreds of millions of years of fossilized sunshine in less than two centuries. Most of that consumption has occurred within our own lifetime:

    As a result, the world is consuming 49 times as much energy as in 1850, 89 percent of which is nonrenewable (oil, gas, coal, and uranium). The pace and scale of this growth are astounding. Fully 90 percent of all fossil fuels have been consumed since 1937. Half have been consumed since 1985. Conventional wisdom is that coal has been replaced to a large degree by oil and natural gas. This is not true: The average world citizen consumes the same amount of coal per capita today as in 1910, and 90 percent of all coal ever consumed has been burned since 1911. The consumption of oil merely added to per capita energy consumption, as opposed to displacing coal. Natural gas and nuclear energy added still further to energy throughput. Ninety percent of all oil consumed by humankind has been burned since 1961, and 90 percent of all natural gas since 1966. The rate of consumption has accelerated rapidly over the last couple of decades: 50 percent of all oil since 1988, 50 percent of natural gas since 1992, and 50 percent of coal since 1975.The Energy Reader (p. 156). Watershed Media. Kindle Edition.

    Fossil fuels sustain our civilization. It is the height of irresponsibility for the world’s political leadership to continue to permit their consumption for any other purpose than sustaining the lives and welfare of billions of people while we attempt to transition to more sustainable energy sources.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      What if the world’s political leadership has quietly decided behind closed doors that the lives of billions of people are to be NON-sustained or UN-sustained or DE-sustained or REVERSE-sustained or whatever word you prefer? And what if the world’s political leadership has quietly shared the understanding that a way must be found to make the NON/UN/DE/REVERSE-sustainment of the lives of billions of people look like an accident? And the best way to make it look like an accident is to “passively permit” the exact same patterns of fossil fuel use we now have to continue or even increase?

      Reply
      1. Steven

        The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories?

        Possible, I suppose, but not very likely. Here are a few problems:
        1- in a cooked world, will there be ANY boltholes?
        2- even if there are, will they be equipped with enough automated industry and resource inputs to insure ‘the good life’ will still be worth living?

        It is far more likely (KISS?) that in a world governed by hunger for money and power, its leadership has given little thought to anything more than short term profits and geopolitical Great Games.

        Reply
        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > 1- in a cooked world, will there be ANY boltholes?
          > 2- even if there are, will they be equipped with enough automated industry and resource inputs to insure ‘the good life’ will still be worth living?

          Probably not, and probably not.

          However, that’s not the point. The point is what elites believe. And a very unpleasant implication of the push for robots and AI, is that elites think an enormous, Jackpot-style die-off will be fine. That’s why I prefer “exterminism” as a frame, rather than “denialism.”

          > It is far more likely (KISS?) that in a world governed by hunger for money and power, its leadership has given little thought to anything more than short term profits and geopolitical Great Games.

          That, I think, is true for the political and professional/managerial classes. However, an enormous amount of wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few oligarchs; at that level, individual and small group factors also come into play.

          Reply
      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > What if the world’s political leadership has quietly decided behind closed doors that the lives of billions of people are to be NON-sustained or UN-sustained or DE-sustained or REVERSE-sustained or whatever word you prefer?

        I am coming to the ugly conclusion that something like is the most parsimonious explanation. However, I would say that the decision was taken not at the political level, but at the 0.01% level; by global oligarchs.

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        1. jrs

          The DNC which will not allow a climate debate even informally outside of official debates because “they don’t allow special issue debates”, allowed an immigration debate just recently (and noone has been banned from the primaries for it).

          We are being massively lied to by someone (probably the DNC unless one disbelieves Inslee however I believe the DNC has said themselves they don’t allow them).

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T-eE0062K4

          Bernie and Inslee were there, so uh they do know, wish I could have been in that part of greater L.A. that day. Kamala and Castro were there (not so much so, but I suppose I’d have to put up with them). But anyway their views on immigration might be mildly interesting, it’s not a huge issue for me, but the real point here is we are massively BEING LIED TO on this climate debate thing.

          Unofficial debates on single issue topics are happening, just must not talk about the climate.

          Reply
        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          In which case, the political operators and the ten percenters will find themselves shocked and surprised when they are denied admittance and entry into the olig-Arks. Or perhaps they will just be mystified and confused when the global oligarchs
          quietly disappear in a cloud of muffled silence.

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      3. Jeremy Grimm

        I would spin things differently. I don’t believe a decision has been reached as such. I believe all parties in the Power Elite are aware Society will soon collapse if it continues on its present course. I believe they are also aware that the changes necessary to avoid — or what is more likely — mitigate that collapse, will impact their present status and all their perks and advantages. The imagine the collapse will come later when it won’t affect them, and just in case they are building their bunkers. I’m not sure the Power Elite ever worried about the welfare of the rest of us. We are not important except as a potential threat to their privilege.

        And suppose some particular member of the Power Elite decided to recognize the humanity of those they had been exploiting. What frightens me is that the organizations, government bureaucracies, and Corporate Cartels have acquired a life of their own and would quickly expel any member of the Power Elite so foolish as to attempt a change from the current paths toward collapse. Our human organizations are inhuman. They have no concern for Humankind.

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    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Meteorologists have always been reluctant to attribute particular weather events to climate change. Though meteorology and climatology work with similar models and data they work toward very different ‘answers’. Meteorologists want to know the weather tomorrow, the next day and as far in the future as possible — which works out to be roughly a week in the future. If a meteorologist predicts sunny and clear for the next day and it rains buckets instead, that little error will receive immediate feedback. Ask for weather a month out for a certain day and no meteorologist would stake their job on that prediction, even if aided by the very best available super-computer weather models. The weather systems are too chaotic. Now a climatologist steps in and predicts an increasing probability in the next decades for 500-year weather events using slightly different models for systems similar to the weather systems, and different initial data. Ask either of the two scientists to attribute a particular 500-year event to climate change and they will have good reason to hedge making a strong causal attribution. But I have to wonder why ask the question? Does the answer matter? If a particular 500-year weather event ‘X’ was definitely not caused by climate change it doesn’t change the climatologist’s prediction or the truth or falsehood of the prediction that 500-year weather events will be more probable in the next decades.

      Asking other scientists, politicians, and taking public polls to measure opinion and belief does little but measure the extent of Neoliberalism success in making Science handmaiden to Commerce. A recent link posted among NakedCapitalism links to “The Climate Investigations Center (CIC)” [https://climateinvestigations.org/]: “Global Climate Coalition, the first industry organization to challenge government action on climate, was launched from the offices of the National Association of Manufacturers, with leadership dominated by coal-vested electric utility interests, fossil fuel companies (oil, coal) and their trade associations, and heavy manufacturing (i.e. steel, aluminum, railroads, and automobiles). The GCC was corporate America’s primary vehicle of climate change science denial and regulatory delay during its existence until 2002.”
      “GCC’s Priority: Co-opting Science Within the International Climate Negotiation Process –” ref. “Big Business Funds Climate Change Denial and Regulatory Delay” from pp. 1 and 2, [https://climateinvestigations.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/The-Global-Climate-Coalition-Denial-and-Delay.pdf]

      The oceans are heating up — measurably. The Arctic is visibly melting year-by-year. Sure l looks like climate change to me. Past paleoclimate data suggest the changes in weather attending past climate change were ‘dramatic’ and there is nothing to suggest this time will be different. The world population is growing. There were 2.5 billion humans in 1950. There are 7.7 billion humans this year[https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/]. Present food and water supplies are poorly distributed and only slightly more than adequate to maintain the current populations. Humankind is consuming its oceans and underground mountains of fossil fuels at a prodigious and prodigiously growing rate leaving little doubt that even oceans and mountains can be consumed. Our economies, populations, and way-of-life is dependent on this consumption of fossil fuels. When they are gone, there isn’t any more. Fossil fuels are only one of many non-renewable resources Humankind depends upon for our current ‘civilization’ and Society and their supports.

      “So, we have an utterly dysfunctional system” — I can agree with that. But is the system “moving slowly toward greater functionality”? I do not think so. I believe the system is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Viewed from a different perspective, It has been exceedingly functional and growing more capable at slowing any meaningful action toward mitigating the destruction, suffering, and death we can enjoy in the coming collapse of our civilization, Society, and populations as the world we knew crashes to its end.

      Reply
    3. Math is Your Friend

      “There is a more basic reason than climate change for conservation and limiting the use of fossil fuels. We will soon have no choice. Fossil fuels have allowed our species to propagate way beyond sustainable limits”

      That is an assumption, and probably about as accurate as other Malthusian predictions.

      We are way beyond the sustainable population limits using hunter/gatherer methods of food production.

      We invented agriculture to fix that.

      Then we ended up hitting the limits of slash and burn agriculture.

      Methods changed again. Limits of water set a new limit on what land could be farmed, and the yeilds.. We discovered irrigation.

      When the limit became soil depletion, we discovered crop rotation, and use of nitrogen fixing plants.

      When the limit became the plants themselves we bred new, more efficient plants, which got us past the 2 or 3 billion older crops could sustain.

      Now we have limitations in the amount of arable land, and the distribution of fresh water. We’ll change methods again.

      We’ve long since passed the limits of energy from horses, mules, oxen… or from burning wood and dung.

      We substituted wind, water, and coal.

      Then we moved on to geothermal, natural gas, oil, hydro, solar, tidal, and nuclear (fission).

      Long before we run out of uranium, thorium and plutonium, we should have practical nuclear fusion power. That should be good for millions of years just with planetary resources alone, and there’s a LOT more hydrogen at Saturn and Jupiter, and in a thousand years we’ll be able to get that, too… and we haven’t even looked at solar orbit power stations which can provide some types of power with, one suspects, modest investment.

      Later probable developments are left to those who like solving problems, but if history teaches us anything, it is that the limits of existing technologies become irrelevant as we progress.

      Reply
  11. John

    “But instead of watching the boiling pot in the kitchen, they’re sitting round the card table in the living room, playing Snakes and Ladders, or something equally childish.”
    Lots of irony in that quote given the history of the Game: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes_and_Ladders
    From the wiki: The game was popular in ancient India by the name Moksha Patam. It was also associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire.
    Contemplating climate change thru the lens of human pursuit of destiny and desire might spur some useful action.
    Another take on the game is by Harish Johari in his exposition of the game, Leela: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3041877-leela
    We are in the game whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Just ask those midwest corn farmers.

    Reply
  12. juliania

    I know I won’t get posted not being a subscriber, but maybe you will see this, Lambert.

    Just wanted to say bravo to you for this and the previous excellent pieces on the
    midwest flooding. The points about groundwater saturation levels are excellent.

    My thought all along has been what goes up must come down. It seems so obvious
    that polar melting in such huge quantities is going to increase flooding in a major
    way. Here in mountain desert we already see much more precipitation over the
    last couple of years.

    Thank you for your work!

    Reply
    1. juliania

      Coming back to read comments, and I see me here. Many thanks, and I just add for those who can subscribe, many thanks to you also!

      Reply
      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        Thank you for coming back. Our comment system often does not produce instant results, and Skynet is Skynet, but I think our moderation system is as good as any to be found on the web. Ditto, moderators.

        Adding, you don’t have to subscribe to comment.

        Reply
  13. sharonsj

    About six years ago, here in rural Pennsylvania we had the 50-yr flood, the 100-yr flood and the 500-yr flood all at once. A lot of people never recovered. And since this is a low-income area, most people didn’t have–and still don’t have or can’t get–flood insurance. This is also a die-hard Republican area and a goodly percentage don’t believe in climate change. I agree that the national media–as well as local conservative radio–isn’t talking about the problem; that’s why I am so pessimistic about the future.

    Reply

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